The Emergence of the Digital Twin for Facility Operations and Management

According to the Gartner Hype Cycle the digital twin concept is a trending technology that is being adopted by numerous industries, including manufacturing, aviation, automotive, civil infrastructure, and healthcare. However, for the commercial facility operations and management (FM) community, the concept is relatively new - but it should not be.

Building operators and managers are tasked with running safe, sustainable, and efficient buildings through the COVID-19 Pandemic and beyond. They face tight budgets, limited resources, constant regulatory monitoring and for many, are unfamiliar with advanced technologies.

Using a digital twin can be a critical and strategic step in the right direction for these teams but they just do not know where to start.

Definition and Key Benefits

“The benefits of the digital twin depend upon the level of implementation to support the challenges faced by facility operators and engineer’s day in and day out,” said Aaron Peterson, leader of VueOps, a strategic partner of DPR Construction. “One of our recent life science customers is focused on increasing its maintenance productivity. To do that, we are helping to build a solid data foundation that will lead to an understanding of how to improve their processes, increase facility up time and increase their tenant satisfaction, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the lifecycle of their build.”

At first, the digital twin concept consisted of capturing information about a physical product digitally and visually. But a digital twin is not just a 3D model; it is a combination of model, product, location, performance data, and the systems they comprise. Connections between the products in a building and their digital twin are created when internet enabled sensors (installed on products) stream operating data to the twin for diagnostic analysis, visualization, and performance simulation.

A recent Arup report describes the digital twin with a five-level framework, spanning from 3D visualization to autonomous operation and control. Building operators and managers who are currently using a digital twin work within Level 1 -3. In the AEC industry, the expanded practices of incorporating data from external sources, autonomous operation, and control (Level 4 –5) is where there is opportunity to deliver even more value.

Level 1: Allows teams to virtually investigate problems quickly, identify building equipment and understand impacts on building occupants. It is a model of the products that comprise building systems and the building spaces they serve.

Level 2: Offers teams the ability to develop insight about equipment that requires frequent repair or performs sub-optimally. This information can inform fix or replace decisions and improve operational reliability and facility up time. Level 2 digital twin incorporates historical data, represented in preventive maintenance and incident response work orders from asset management systems.

Level 3: Improves collection of real time performance data about products via internet enabled sensors. It enables you to detect performance issues and compare real time data with baseline data to make changes to optimize your systems.

Level 4: Enhances your ability to optimize equipment performance by addressing how external factors affect system performance. For example, local weather, external temperatures, and insulation levels.

Level 5: The digital twin at this level can be trained to recognize the cause of issues in building performance and autonomously control and correct equipment operation using machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies.

“A digital twin helps customers improve up time of their facilities and for the people doing critical work within them,” said Andrew Arnold, Product Lead, VueOps. “With a single source of truth for all facility document, data and models, clients can find the right information and the right time, with multiple views of a building through 2D drawings, 3D models and asset registers. This critical data allows FM teams to spend less time looking for information and planning and more time addressing work orders and maintenance tasks.”

Setting Up Your Digital Twin Starts with BIM

Setting up a digital twin starts with a clear need for 3D representation of your mechanical system(s) and the spaces it serves. FM teams need to easily locate and identify products of a system in terms of the building locations, i.e., building levels, zones, and rooms.

Building Information Models (BIM) - already a part of nearly every major construction project - provide an early starting point for collecting and organizing the needed data. In some cases, they provide design information that represents the design function and occupancy requirements for rooms and spaces.

Since BIM exists before the physical building, you can use it for the digital representation of the products that will be installed in the building and associate design and functional requirements. You can also use BIM to understand how the products of a system are connected. In some cases, the BIM authoring system can define and represent building systems; in other cases, owners can collect the system data using other tools to group the members of a system.

Once teams have identified, located, and inventoried the installed products, they can build out the information needed for the digital twin as construction progresses by collecting and organizing data from project submittals and closeout, including test and balance reports, and the manufacturer’s recommended operation and maintenance procedures.

“Building a digital twin is a big endeavor,” said Aaron Peterson, VueOps. “But with managed services and the right enabling technology and platform, you can choose a hosted, custom or integrated approach to empower teams to prevent downtime, save money and take advantage of rich Building Information Modeling.”